In or out of the Samajwadi Party, Azam Khan is never out of the news. Or controversy. This month, Uttar Pradesh’s most (in) famous Muslim politician hit the headlines one more time after allegations surfaced that he forced the district administration in Muzaffarnagar to let sectarian Hindu-Muslim violence rage three weeks ago. He is also accused of forcing the police to free seven Muslim men arrested for the murder of two Jats on 27 August, an act that fuelled anger among that community and escalated tensions, eventually causing the sectarian violence that has claimed nearly 50 lives.
“Khan is the face of communal politics in Uttar Pradesh,” says BJP leader Hridaya Narain Dikshit bluntly. “I cannot recall him ever raising the issues of poverty, illiteracy, unemployment and overall deprivation of the Muslims.” Adds journalist and former Rajya Sabha MP Shahid Siddiqui, who quit the SP last year: “Khan has an autocratic temperament because he feels insecure. For him, both the party and the Muslim community are secondary to his ego and his personal agenda is paramount.”
Party colleagues and opponents both say the above is a rather accurate description of Khan’s mien in a four-decade political life. He operates solo, is suspicious, quickly takes offence, and swears at anyone who may threaten his locus. That’s how, they say, Khan has survived as a confidant of SP president Mulayam Singh Yadav for decades.
That is, barring a brief 18 months when he was sacked in 2009 for opposing the induction of former CM Kalyan Singh, who was anathema to the Muslims as he had ruled the state when Hindu zealots razed Ayodhya’s Babri mosque in 1992. Khan had also fought publicly with Mulayam’s other confidant, Amar Singh, and his protege, movie star-turned-Lok Sabha MP Jaya Prada. To his credit, Khan is back in the party. Amar Singh, once invincible, and Jaya Prada have long been out. As has been Kalyan Singh.
It has been a dramatic journey for Khan, 55, who entered public life during his teenage years as a cultural secretary while studying at the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU). “He was a great orator and made fiery speeches in chaste Urdu,” recalls Peerzada Ahmed Salim, a politician in Aligarh who has known Khan since his university days. Always flamboyant — his hostel room was numbered zero — Khan’s jump into politics was accidental.
Pushed by a cabal that was unhappy with a front-runner, Khan won the post of AMU students’ union secretary as a greenhorn in 1974. Both he and his opponent hailed from the Muslim-dominated Rampur district, but Khan was a better orator. His opening shot, “Sir Syed ke chaman ke bekhauf shehzaadon, Azam Khan aapse mukhatib hai (O fearless princes of Sir Syed’s garden, Azam Khan is now before you),” appealed to the students’ emotional connect with AMU’s 19th-century founder, Syed Ahmed Khan.
It was another accident of fate that landed him as a co-prisoner of Mulayam, who was then a mid-level opposition politician, in a Varanasi prison shortly after the Emergency was imposed in 1975. On being released 18 months later, Khan received a hero’s welcome at the Aligarh railway station. “More students turned up that day than had when the AMU team had won the all-India university football cup,” says Salim.
But at a reception called to honour him the next day, he refused to let AMU vice-chancellor AM Khusro, who Khan blamed for his jailing, speak there. The students protested angrily but he didn’t budge. Khusro couldn’t speak. Headed to his home in Rampur the next day, Khan went to the railway station alone on a cycle rickshaw. “No one saw him off,” recalls Salim. “In 48 hours, he had gone from hero to zero.”
Due to their bond forged in prison, when Mulayam became CM in November 1989, he made Khan, who had won his third term as an MLA from Rampur, a minister. Khan’s first ruckus came in six months while shacking at a state guesthouse. Claiming that someone peeped on him when he was in the shower, Khan roughed up the guesthouse manager. The police were called as the staff forced him to flee. When the government suspended the manager, the Opposition stalled the House for three days and demanded that Khan be sacked. Eventually, Mulayam cajoled the Opposition into forgiving Khan.
Mulayam’s indulgence of Khan would soon become a pattern. “To win Muslim votes, Mulayam has pampered him so much that Khan has gone berserk,” says Nadeem Ahmad, a Muslim religious figure in Saharanpur, who has known Khan for decades. Khan rose in Mulayam’s esteem in the 1980s when the BJP-backed campaign to replace the 16th-century Babri mosque with a temple spurred Mulayam to position himself as a saviour of the Muslims. It was Khan who forged ties with clerics and opinion-makers.
No other Muslim leader has since succeeded in toppling him in the party. Stalwarts such as Rashid Masood from Saharanpur and Shafikur Rahman Burk from Moradabad had to leave the party. Those still around, such as minister Shahid Manzoor, a Pathan popular in west UP, battle him for eminence. “Khan knows how to fire the imagination of the Muslims and galvanise them at the elections,” says Salim.
Few of the SP’s 42 Muslim MLAs, nine of whom are ministers, match that acumen. Unsurprisingly, not one of them is willing to speak against him. Khan targeted Health Minister Ahmed Hasan two months ago by writing to Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav, Mulayam’s son, accusing principal health secretary Praveer Kumar of being communal and deliberately posting incompetent doctors at Rampur hospital.
No wonder the party’s Muslim leaders were ecstatic when Khan was expelled in 2009. Many lobbied Shivpal Yadav, Mulayam’s younger brother and now Public Works Department minister, to block Khan’s return. But the Yadav father-son duo got a jolt in October 2009 when Akhilesh’s wife Dimple lost a by-election to fill the Ferozabad Lok Sabha seat in west UP that her husband had vacated because he had won from another seat.
When the party stood third in an Assembly bypoll on a Muslim-dominated seat, Mulayam publicly apologised for inducting Kalyan Singh and brought Khan home. Humiliated, Shivpal quit as Leader of the Opposition. Mulayam nominated Khan for the job. Ever the drama queen, Khan refused saying he had not rejoined to gain office.
Muslim leaders now must butter him to move up in the party. Former minister and five-term MLA from Deoria district, Shakir Ali, has been lobbying Khan to help him become a minister again. He has had no luck yet. Ali is no lightweight. In last year’s Assembly election that brought the SP to power, he had defeated a top BJP leader. “Khan has humiliated every Muslim leader of his party,” says journalist Siddiqui.
Of course, Khan’s veto can doom non-Muslims, too. Minister of State for Rural Development Arvind Singh ‘Gope’, a diehard loyalist of the Yadav family, wasn’t given a Cabinet rank because Khan objected owing to Gope’s once closeness to Amar Singh.
Outwitting all other Muslims in the SP has made it easy for Khan to hold his party to ransom through emotional blackmail. On 11 September, he boycotted the SP’s two-day national executive meet at Agra city to register his anger with Akhilesh, who refused to let Khan take charge of the district administration in Muzaffarnagar during the preceding week’s violence. Khan retaliated by publicly criticising the government’s failure to control the riots.
Khan had been miffed with the CM — who is much younger and junior, too — since July when the state government suspended a rookie IAS officer in Gautam Budh Nagar district after she ordered a mosque’s wall razed. Though it snowballed into a sectarian issue, the CM ignored Khan who wanted a central role in the controversy. Akhilesh angered him further by asking Health Minister Hasan to speak to the media on it.
While the Muslim leaders in SP hold their tongue, non-Muslims have repeatedly expressed their frustration with Khan’s antics. Lok Sabha MP Ramgopal Yadav, who, too, is Mulayam’s brother, has publicly rebuked Khan. Rajya Sabha MP Naresh Agarwal issued a statement saying it was Khan’s “mistaken belief” that Muslims vote for the SP due to him. For a while, it seemed Khan might be shown the door again. But the CM drove down to his residence in Lucknow on 13 September and smoked the peace pipe.
Evidently, only Mulayam has the capacity to rein Khan in. During the SP’s previous regime of 2003-07 when Mulayam was CM, Khan created an unprecedented scene in the Assembly heckling Speaker Mata Prasad Pandey, who was about to read a note sent by the then Governor, India’s former Intelligence Bureau chief, TV Rajeshwar. Rajeshwar wanted Pandey to apprise the House that a Bill seeking to create a Muslim university in Rampur included a clause that would make Khan a lifelong chancellor. Calling it unconstitutional, the Governor had refused to give his assent to the Bill, but the government had allocated Rs 100 crore for the university.
Shockingly, even though he was parliamentary affairs minister, Khan kicked up a storm and did not allow Pandey to read it. Not content with this, he abused the Governor. Mulayam later took Khan with him to the Governor and made him apologise. Rajeshwar approved the Bill. After the SP lost power in 2007, Khan went quiet on the Bill. But when the SP returned to power in 2012, he launched a scathing attack on the then Governor BL Joshi calling him anti- Muslim for not approving another Bill that would give the university a minority status.
Mercifully, in May, the National Commission for Minority Educational Institutions granted the minority status to the Jauhaur University.